I have the following image to start a couple of assemblies at school. My question for students: what emotions is the woman at the centre of this image experiencing?
Negative answers abound: she is invariably lonely and sad. Such assumptions about standing aside from the crowd pervades our culture. We want to be picked first in the school team, to prove popular amongst our peers. Fitting in, with all of the pressures that attend it, appears to drive our thinking and it is particularly so for status-sensitive teenagers.
In a society that celebrates extroversion and heralds the number of friends you have as a proxy for your happiness, it is no surprise that we see introversion pathologised as bleak loneliness rather than splendid isolation. In doing so, we put our introverted teachers and students at a disadvantage.
So what is the difference between introversion and extraversion? This Fast Company article explains it well:
Introverts (or those of us with introverted tendencies) tend to recharge by spending time alone. They lose energy from being around people for long periods of time, particularly large crowds.
Extroverts, on the other hand, gain energy from other people. Extroverts actually find their energy is sapped when they spend too much time alone. They recharge by being social.
In her book on introversion and introverts, ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking‘, Susan Cain relates the truism that people associate extroversion with social confidence. This social confidence, in turn, is equated with likability and intelligence.
Schools then, are in danger of becoming a world ordered for extroverts, alienating the quiet introvert. It is not until years after my school experience did I recognise that I possessed many introvert traits (knowing this fact alone would have proven a boon for my anxious teen self). I was able to differentiate introversion from shyness. I wasn’t shy at school, but I needed some time alone to recover and reflect upon a day filled with people.
Now, emboldened by experience, I recognise that the deficit model society imposes upon people who are naturally more introverted is deeply flawed. Though leaders emerge often by talking first and most, we can mistake extroversion for confidence and competence, therefore missing the great strengths of our more introverted students and colleagues.
Iesha Small, Assistant Headteacher at Kings Langley School in Hertfordshire, is currently writing a book with working title ‘The Unexpected Leader’ (due out in 2017 with Crown House) where she explores the seeming disconnect between leadership and introversion. She has this to say:
“Sadly people tend to associate introversion with shyness or lack of confidence. The issue for introverts is not the quality of our work but people’s perception of our effectiveness due to a natural tendency to reflect and not self publicise. This is not a problem in the classroom as students can tell how well teachers teach but can be problematic regarding how other colleagues may perceive us in the other aspects of our jobs.
I’ve been interviewing successful introverted leaders recently. A key thing that comes through is their personal drive and a real passion and desire to get the best for their students and staff. Introverted teachers who lead others can convey a quiet and unmistakable confidence if we tap into our personal reasons for working in education and our specific contexts and effectively learn to communicate that and our vision to those that we lead and work with.
On the other hand, what can leaders do to help introverted staff? I think number one is to ask what they notice. Introverts tend to observe and process people and situations well. Ask what introverted colleagues have noticed as they will often have insights you may have missed. It may be at the end of a meeting to ensure all voices are heard. It could be in writing, via a quick email. Just let them know their opinion is noted and valued even if it isn’t the loudest. When sharing these insights with others, acknowledge the source so that other colleagues can be aware too.
All successful introverts I’ve come across have benefited from colleagues in school who have taken the time to notice, champion and help develop their potential.
Lastly, how can we help introverted students? Classrooms can be noisy places. It can be worth noting that introverted students need quiet to reflect and process their learning. I now regularly have a timed section of certain lesson that is virtually silent and let students know that it’s for our classmates who need quiet to think. Students respond surprisingly well to that explanation.”
What struck me most from Iesha’s words was the need to “notice” and “champion” those introvert traits and strengths in our colleagues and our students.